Stress is a response — in particular, your body’s response — to challenging feelings, situations, responsibilities, and threats. Stress happens naturally in your body, but it can manifest in many ways: physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Because stress is a response, and because everyone responds differently to different situations, it makes sense that what causes stress is unique to the individual. For example, while one individual may become excessively stressed at the prospect of speaking in public, someone else who doesn’t mind public speaking may find it much more stressful to be late for a meeting.
Furthermore, their different levels or intensities of stress. These divide into three categories:
Small annoyances, causing mostly un-harmful stress
This includes things like accidentally spilling a drink at the table, forgetting someone’s name who you’ve met before, or being late to a dinner party.
Medium challenges causing mid-level stress
This level of stress includes things that are slightly more serious — for example, the knowledge that you may be downsized at your job, planning a wedding, or worrying about a family member going into surgery.
Dangerous situations causing debilitating stress
Finally, these stressors are the most serious and include things like being diagnosed with a severe illness, losing your home to a natural disaster, or going through a divorce.
How Stress Hormones Work
In the short-term, most types of minor stress can be okay (we’ll talk more about this later). We’re able to deal with these levels of stress. Problems with anxiety begin to occur when the stress response “fight or flight” is activated for too long or too often.
Fight or flight is a natural response that humans have built into our DNA. It’s a survival mechanism, brought on when we sense danger.
When an immediate threat is present — such as a bull charging right toward you or the strong smell of smoke when you wake up in the middle of the night — this brings about an onslaught of stress hormones. These hormones react in the body and produce an immediate physiological response.
The Stress Response Step-by-Step
The stress response happens so quickly and automatically that you’d never notice the individual steps, however, this is what’s going on in your brain when you experience the stress response (fight or flight):
- You experience a stressful scenario. Let’s say you see a car driving toward you at high speed. This information comes from your vision and hearing. Your eyes and ears send the message to your brain — specifically, to the amygdala, which is in charge of processing emotion.
- Your amygdala recognizes the oncoming car as a severe danger and “sounds the alarm” to the command center of your brain — the hypothalamus.
- The hypothalamus is in charge of motivating your body’s sympathetic nervous system. This is where fight or flight comes in. The nervous system is activated by the hypothalamus to produce adrenaline (epinephrine) within the adrenal glands.
- The circulation of adrenaline causes all sorts of changes. It quickens your heart rate, increases your blood pressure, makes your breathing faster, increases blood sugar to provide your body with more energy, and, ultimately, sharpens your senses.
- These responses continue, and a second response called the HPA axis is activated. If danger is still sensed, the hypothalamus sends a hormone called CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone) to the pituitary gland, which causes (ACTH) adrenocorticotropic hormone to be released.
- Finally, as ACTH activates the adrenal glands, they release the hormone cortisol.
You may have heard of cortisol, which refers to “the stress hormone.” Cortisol stays at high levels when a continued threat is perceived (for example, if the car coming at you were to keep chasing you). However, it’s easy to see that if cortisol stays in your system for too long and unnecessarily — essentially holding its finger down on your body’s alarm button — this can cause problems for your heart and other methods.
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